A full-page advertisement that ran on page A7 of Monday's ProJo featured an illustration depicting a workshop of flinty Amish craftsmen busily building what the headline called an "Amish mantle and miracle invention" that helps "home heat bills hit rock bottom."
The news report-style come-on, complete with a byline for "Mark Woods" of "Universal Media Syndicate," made this alluring pitch: "Saves money: only uses about 8 cents electric an hour; so turn down your thermostat and never be cold again."
The ProJo and other cash-hungry newspapers have run similar news-style ads for special coin-buying opportunities, "Universal Health Cards," and other would-be amazing deals, all with supposed limited-time offers.
Critics call these highly overpriced hypes that, while not illegal (and with small disclaimers citing the material as advertisements), are meant to separate gullible people from their money.
One contributor on Daily Kos, for example, wrote this about the "Amish heater": "Don't get me wrong. I'm not knocking the idea of turning down your thermostat and only heating the room you are in. That's smart — you will use less energy but you don't have to buy a $249 (plus shipping) 'Miracle Invention' to do it."
When an ad exec at the News & Observer in North Carolina defended an ad the paper published for the "Universal Health Card," calling it clear about "what it is and what it is not," the N&O's public editor disagreed.
"To me the ad looks misleading and, from my brief research, promises more than it delivers," the public editor wrote. "I'm concerned not only that it gives information to readers that is at best confusing, but also that it undermines the credibility of the newspaper. The ad caused me to wonder whether the well-publicized revenue declines in the newspaper business have caused the paper to accept advertising that might not appear in flusher times."
Back in Rhode Island, "As long as [such advertising] is clearly marked as advertising, we do not have an issue without it," says Tim Schick, administrator of the Providence Newspaper Guild.
"There's always that risk," that these ads will lure vulnerable individuals, Schick adds, "but this is nothing new in the industry. It has been going on for a long time. Ultimately, it's a business decision on the part of the newspaper whether to accept it or not. In most cases, from what I've seen, unless you're extraordinarily careless, what's showing up in the Journal is fairly obviously an advertisement."